A Letter from the Provinces: On the Price of Oil

by Patrick Baker                                                                 August 20, 2008

In the provinces the price of oil is killing us. It costs me eighty euros – that’s one hundred twenty-five dollars of our present monopoly money – to fill my Fiat’s tank. I have even started shifting early and driving well under the speed limit to save gas, thus losing out on one of Germany’s only indulgent pleasures: reckless velocity on the Autobahn.

    I know, the price of oil is killing you, too, at home. It is bringing the American automotive industry to its knees. It is bringing the American driver to lay down precious offerings on the mini-me altar of hybrid technology. And it is has pushed American congressmen to suggest sacrificing their own budget for the sake of looking like they actually care about the citizens. Do they?

    Take the gas tax holiday idea. One wonders just how satisfying sixteen cents less per gallon could be. Gee whiz, we could get a lot of swell stuff with that extra two to five dollars per week! If I were in the mother country to take advantage of this great deal, I think I would splurge on an additional plain, small coffee at one of the few remaining Starbucks on my block. But then a scary thought occurred to me. Since the gas companies already know that Americans are willing to pay that 16 cents per gallon, won’t they just raise the price accordingly during the so-called holiday? Won’t a gas tax holiday just make it easier for oil companies to soak the American consumer? I see fewer lattés in the future.

    The German government has responded to rising heating costs with the advice to put on an extra sweater this winter. Forget re-election. Can you imagine an American politician getting home safely after saying something like that?

    I’ve got a better idea than sweaters, though. How about peace? I know that sounds naive, but I can make it as Machiavellian as apple pie if you’d like. The way I reckon it, the price of oil is not so much what we’re paying at the pump, but what we’re paying in useless wars, loans from China, international standing, and polar ice. The real price of oil is over four thousand Americans and several hundred billion dollars frittered away in Iraq. It is unpayable debt to a country more than happy to own us. It is the inability, despite embarrassing attempts, to take the high ground over Russia on the Georgia conflict. And it is the increasing likelihood of Kevin Costner’s worst movie finding vindication.

    Imagine what would have happened if America had invested just one of the many hundred billion dollars it flushed down Iraq – just say it to yourself real slow: one hundred b-i-l-l-i-o-n – in alternative energy research and development, just like it once put so many resources into the space program, or into designing the atomic bomb. If you think replacing oil with the sun is a pipe dream, how do you think going to the moon sounded in the 1950s? And yet Americans worked and sacrificed, and Neil Armstrong showed us what a divinely felt purpose and gobs of money can do. That is how technological advancements – unlike wars – are won. And once this advancement has been made, no wars will ever need to be fought again in the Middle East-because the region will no longer have any value for us.

    Why is it that Americans and their politicians could be so optimistic when it came to showing up the Ruskies, but now they just roll over and play brain-dead when we need to get out from under the thumb of the oil barons? Whatever the case, one thing is clear: the price of oil should not be calculated in money, but in lives, in peace, and in our future well-being. I wish someone at home were saying these things, but perhaps they can be seen more easily from the provinces.

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